The Hidden Matchup

There’s more to XLVIII than the league’s top offense going up against the league’s top D. The respective coordinators, Denver’s Adam Gase and Seattle’s Dan Quinn, are rising stars who are destined to become head coaches. Think of this Super Bowl as the prequel to something even bigger between the two
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NEW YORK — One is a bit younger, but in terms of where they are in their careers, two of the main combatants in Super Bowl XLVIII, Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, couldn’t be more similar.

They both have experience under head coaches with a variety of styles, including stints under Nick Saban and Steve Mariucci. Each was handed the keys to an elite unit after his predecessor got a head coaching opportunity elsewhere in the offseason, and each has used his own spin to take his team to another level in his first season as coordinator. Both seem to be in no-lose situations in terms of their futures, with Gase coaching Peyton Manning and the league’s top-ranked offense, and Quinn coaching the Legion of Boom and the league’s top-ranked defense. And this will likely be the first of many head-to-head matchups, because both are going to be head coaches in the NFL in the very near future. Gase vs. Quinn, coming soon to a NFL stadium near you. This Sunday just happens to the prequel.

How close are they to taking the next step? Both were high on the Browns’ wish list during their search for a new head coach, but Gase and Quinn didn’t want to go any further in the process with the Lombardi Trophy in their sights. Gase withdrew completely.

“When [the day after the Super Bowl] came around, I just thought there wasn't enough time to get the things done that I needed to get done,” Gase said of cobbling together a new coaching staff. “If we would have lost [the Super Bowl], I would have gone into hibernation for a month because I would have been violently depressed.”

Quinn, 43, will do his best to make the 35-year-old Gase suffer through that hibernation. Despite making the jump from defensive coordinator at the University of Florida in 2011 and ’12, Quinn improved Seattle’s defense from 15.3 points and 306.2 yards allowed per game (and 31 total turnovers) last season, to 14.4 points, 273.6 yards and 39 turnovers this season.

Gase and Quinn (Chris Humphreys and Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports)

Chris Humphreys and Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports

“He just took it to another level,” said Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable, the former Raiders head coach. “That speaks volumes about Dan and what he's doing. I think when you come in with some freshness and a fresher voice, sometimes it's a boost and I think that's exactly what's happened. Just kind of a new thought, new brain, new voice and here we go. A bunch of good players, too.”

This isn’t Quinn’s first go-round in the NFL, or even in Seattle for that matter. He was the defensive line coach there from ’09-10 before joining Will Muschamp at Florida to get the coordinator experience he was lacking; he had previously worked with Muschamp on Saban’s Dolphins staff from ’05-06. Quinn also had stints with the 49ers (Mariucci) and Jets (Eric Mangini) before landing with Pete Carroll. That’s when Quinn’s enthusiastic coaching style found its soul mate in Carroll’s jacked and pumped persona.

“He’s always enthused and always pumped for the pass rushers, because obviously he’s an ex-defensive line coach,” end Cliff Avril said of Quinn. “He’s real active and he’s not your typical coach when he’s out there. He’s active doing all kinds of hand drills [with oversized mitts] and all these different things. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Schematically, Quinn has made the Seahawks more aggressive by becoming even more of a man-to-man defense on the outside; Seattle usually zones the middle of the field. Though he said that was a staff-wide decision in the offseason, he’s still the one calling the plays.

“We wanted to play as aggressively as we could because of the style of players that we had,” Quinn said. “It was more just a function of adding that to what we do. And then the numbers were looking good as far as playing man to man, so we wanted to stick with that.”

Quinn also drew high marks from all of his players for his desire to listen and his willingness to implement their ideas.

“I really like Gase,” Manning says. “I like playing for guys that are smarter than me and work as hard as me.”

“The best part is the freewill that we have to make adjustments that we see, and Dan does a great job of listening to what the players say,” said end Michael Bennett. “A lot of coaches don’t like what the players say, but the player is in the game, so the player knows exactly what is going on.”

Gase is very similar. Receiver Wes Welker, who came from the more regimented Patriots under coach Bill Belichick and coordinators Josh McDaniels and Bill O’Brien, said he had never been with a coordinator who actively listens the way Gase does. Welker said he can have fun with Gase, something we’re guessing didn’t happen very much at One Patriot Place.

“He’s got a great personality,” Welker said. “It's been fun that we can have fun and joke around.”

That likely helped endear him to Manning, who is two years his elder and knows his way around a joke—just look at his commercials and his performance(s) on Saturday Night Live. Gase and Manning have attempted to use movie lines as a change-up in verbiage, but they have to watch their dated references. “All the young guys are looking at us like, ‘We don’t know the quote from Stripes,’ ” Gase said.

Gase cut his teeth in coaching under Saban at Michigan State, where McDaniels—his future employer in Denver—was also an understudy. Gase followed Saban to LSU (a total of seven years under the demanding Saban, which is like 35 years under any other coach not named Belichick) and then made the transition to the NFL with the Lions and Mariucci. In Detroit, he learned some valuable lessons from offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who was a master of formations and motion.

“The shifts, the motions, the way he would set everything up, whether it was the run game or the pass game—and make it all look the same—it was unbelievable,” Gase said.

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It was that learned ability to take simple plays and dress them up with different formations and motions that has keyed the Broncos’ offensive success this season. Manning entered Denver’s facility two years ago with his old and trusted Colts playbook. It wasn’t until Gase took the reigns from Mike McCoy (now the Chargers head coach) that the offense really took off.

“Peyton came in and it was like, ‘Here’s Indy’s book,’ and we just combined it all together and we just had to mess around with the formations,” Gase said. “We messed around with that a little bit and this year, when I was able to take over, I could do a little bit of what I wanted to do differently.”

Manning can’t be anything but happy with the results, as he and the Broncos broke the single-season individual and team records for touchdowns and yards. He told The MMQB last month, “I really like Gase. I like playing for guys that are smarter than me and work as hard as me.”

That’s certainly not a bad line to have on your résumé. Not that Gase needs it. Neither does Quinn. Both have earned the respect of the players and coaches with whom they work, and they are in lockstep on their marches toward becoming a head coach very soon.

“Adam’s a very capable, bright guy and I’m sure at some point we’ll be lining up against each other, both in charge of two teams,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “I don't think there’s any question about that. His time is coming. It's just a matter of when.”

Said Cable of Quinn: “I think he will be a head coach very soon. I think he does a wonderful job. I like the way he puts it together, I like the way players are with him and the way he is with the players. They get it, they understand about playing defense and going after the football. It was a tough job he was handed at the start, but I think he's made it better. I think that's a great thing.”

It’s not just the Broncos vs. the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. It’s Gase vs. Quinn, which could be the start of something even bigger.


Five takes on Super Bowl XLVIII and recent NFL news

1. Don’t be surprised if we see the Seahawks use more zone read with quarterback Russell Wilson, especially early, to loosen up what has become a stingy Broncos run defense. “It's part of what they do,” Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I think as we looked at during the regular season, they didn't do as much, I think, in order to protect the quarterback. I think when you're in a single game elimination for the world championship, I think then you can throw that out the window and be a little bit more aggressive with him. So we're prepared for that.” The zone read has long been in Seattle’s arsenal, but it’s been a while since opponents were actually scared of it. In the Seahawks’ past five games, Wilson took off running 17 times, and only three were keepers on the zone read (they gained a whopping -4 yards). Wilson looked rusty at it, probably because they haven’t repped it as much in practice. But with two weeks to prepare, perhaps offensive coordinator Darren Bevell has put it back in. A big run by Wilson on a keeper early would go a long way toward softening up the Broncos. “It's been in every week,” Bevell said. “There have been opportunities for it to happen every week.” Wilson hasn’t taken advantage, perhaps out of preservation, but with no tomorrow after Sunday, the Seahawks have no reason to hold back.

2. One of the biggest keys in Sunday’s game will be how the Broncos’ offense operates against Seattle’s terrific nickel defense. Not only does it have the stellar secondary and athletic linebackers, the four-man line of Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril (along with top-notch subs) is probably the best in the league. The greatness of the Broncos’ targets won’t matter much if there’s constant pressure on Peyton Manning. That’s the issue another very good passing offense, the Saints, had against the Seahawks in the divisional round.

3. The Patriots were ravaged by injuries, especially with passing targets for Tom Brady, so it’s hard not to imagine what they might have done if Wes Welker had remained in New England instead of going to Denver. But the Patriots were even more beat up on defense, especially at defensive tackle after Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down. Think Seahawks’ end Red Bryant might have helped? The 6-foot-4, 323-pound was the undisputed top target of Patriots coach Bill Belichick when free agency opened in 2012. Bryant was in the process of finalizing the details for a visit to New England when the Seahawks came calling with a five-year, $35-million contract. Bryant never left. It’s a good thing, because after talking to friend and former Patriot Ty Warren, Bryant thought he might end up a Patriot. “I was looking forward to the opportunity to go up there and look at the facility and get a feel of the area,” Bryant said. “I definitely at one point thought that was probably where my next move would be. Seattle just made me an offer that I couldn't refuse. But that definitely was going to be my first destination, my first choice.”

4. There must have been a lot of kissing and making up for Gregg Williams to agree to be Jeff Fisher’s defensive coordinator with the Rams. The job was all but his in 2012 before Williams’s suspension took him out of the mix. The job ended up falling to Williams’ son, Blake, but he lasted just one season before being fired by Fisher. That did not sit well with Papa Williams, who completely stopped talking to Fisher for a long period of time.

5. No, I don’t have any idea what the Cowboys are doing. Since being named coach three years ago, Jason Garrett is now on his third offensive coordinator (Garrett himself, Callahan and now Scott Linehan) and fourth defensive coordinator (Paul Pasqualoni, Rob Ryan, Monte Kiffin and now Rod Marinelli). Do I really have to say that’s not even close to the way you run an organization? I’ll give Garrett (and owner Jerry Jones) this: Scott Linehan, who was with Garrett on Nick Saban’s Dolphins staff for one season, is one of the best game-planners and in-game play-callers in the NFL, and they’re lucky to have him. But, man, what a mess.